Monday, November 15, 2004

Pt. Calimere Bird Sanctuary- 11th – 15th Oct

Point Calimere was on my “wish list” since sometime, mainly after some of my bird watching friends narrated their experience at the bird banding camp. So this time when the opportunity presented itself I couldn’t but join the ornithology study group at their annual bird banding camp.

Point Calimere lies at the tip of the eastern Indian coastline and its local name “Kodikkarai” “Kodik” meaning end and “Karai” meaning coast, is aptly self-explanatory.
It is a small piece of land jutting out into the sea and the sea enters at places giving rise to wetland, marshes and swamps. Sprawling across 17.26 sq km surrounded by sea and shore, comprising forests of tidal swamps, dry evergreen forests of mangroves, and this sanctuary is situated in the Nagapattinam district of Tamilnadu.

It was a thrilling proposition to hold a tiny bird in your hand and put a ring around its tarsus, measure its limbs and then let it go. I seriously doubted my ability to do so. More than anything else I was afraid of hurting the bird. All my fears were laid at rest watching Dr. Bala deftly handle birds as if they were an extension of his body. The birds be it tiny warblers or larger water birds were calm and quite in his hands. Some of them particularly shrikes were decidedly curious. They would even peep over his index finger to see their tarsus being ringed. Others on the other hand among these mynas and paradise flycatchers would make every effort to exercise their right to freedom. They would announce their annoyance at being held against their will and create a ruckus.
The water birds (sandpipers, terns, plovers) were most cooperative of the lot.

While having a bird in your hand can give a good opportunity to observe the finer points of identification which in the field are difficult to pinpoint, it does not give you an idea of the natural behaviour of the bird in the field. You do not for e.g. know how the bird sits while perching on a branch, its posture, its flight, and its call. So the ideal situation would be to see the bird in the field as well as be able to ring it. On many occasions we could do just that. On our morning walk we could sight forest warblers, Asian paradise flycatchers, sunbirds, shrikes, babblers in the field and later be able to ring them. Surprisingly this would match. If on the day we sight forest warblers or white-headed babblers, Indian pittas in the field the mist net findings would be similar.

Mist nets are fine nets difficult to see at a distance even to the human eye. These nets are hooked to wooden poles along the regular foraging routes of the birds. E.g. mist nets are set in front of the thorny bushes which are favourite perching sites of warblers. When the bird flies in the direction of the bushes it gets entangled in the net. When it struggles to get free, it further entangles itself. But these nets are so designed that even when the bird struggles it does not strangle itself or get hurt. Mist nets are never to be left unguarded, for opportunistic feeders like crow pheasants will not hesitate to make a meal of these helpless creatures. About two hours after setting the nets the birds are collected. It requires great skill to remove birds from the net and Dr. Bala’s assistants Mr. Paneer and others did it with ease. First one needs to determine which direction the bird came from then you hold the bird by both its legs and remove any mesh entangled in the claws. Then free the wings followed by the head and other parts. We were not allowed to do this obviously because it requires skill. Catching the bird by its wing or tail feathers will lead to injury. After removal the birds are bagged separately according to sizes.

Next comes ringing. These birds have to be ringed and let loose within half and hour’s time. They were caught while on their foraging rounds in the morning so many may be still hungry. Depending on the season some may have left their eggs unguarded while some may have young to feed. So it is most important to quickly complete the ringing process.

While releasing the birds, the land birds will fly to the nearest bush once you loosen your grip. But it is important to release the birds at the site from where they were caught. Care has to be taken that predators are not around. Many times the predators like Brahminy kites have learnt to recognize the basket of the trapper. So the trapper has to be extra cautious to hide the basket while releasing the water birds near the shore.

We would spend our time birding in the early morning and later the trapper would get the birds and wide eyed and enthused we would identify the bird, measure, its wing, tail, tarsus, bill, weigh and ring it and release it. Ringing a bird is a thrilling experience indeed! Dr. Vaibhav one of our team members compares it to holding a new born baby for the first time. The tiny soft creature sits in your palm while you ring its tarsus gently. If the bird sits calmly that means it is comfortable. If your grip were to become slightly tight it will struggle to get free. Dr. Bala also explained moulting-(shedding old feathers and growth of new), the position of primaries and secondaries, and how to determine the age of the bird. Moulting was a new phenomenon I got to learn. Till date I only thought in terms of the breeding plumage and juvenile plumage which changed as the bird entered the adult phase. Given that the bird was in hand we could spread its wings to see any new feathers appearing, identify old feathers and look for any missing ones. Many of these waders are migratory, covering thousands of kilometers to reach their stopover at Pt. Calimere and proceed to Sri Lanka and further. A juvenile bird starts moulting before it begins migration. By the time of migration if the moulting is not complete, it will stop moulting till it reaches its winter sites and then once again begin and complete the moulting process. That makes sense- in view of a long journey ahead, the bird wouldn’t want to loose old feathers before the new ones are fully in position.

In the evenings we would go for strolls to the mud flats. An engrossing spectacle here was Brahminy kites fishing. Many spot billed pelicans graciously soared over the waters and landed effortlessly on the surface. Several types of terns -among them the handsome Caspian tern with its coral red bill deserves mention- plovers, sandpipers were present in numbers. We would try to identify them by the characteristics we learnt while ringing them. So we spent hours identifying the little terns from the whiskered terns from the gull billed terns.
Another “na bhuto-na bhavishyati” experience was walking in the swamps. Usually I will hesitate before entering the waters of Mumbai for fear of garlands, plastic bags and indescribable crap clinging to my ankles. But however mucky and slushy the swamps were the water was clear and transparent. Once you get accustomed to the feel of slimy mud spotted with wader droppings under your bare feet, it is a soothing experience to say the least. From the cool exposed mudflats into the warm water currents there are miles to go. The floor is covered with layers of blue-green algae in innumerable shades of green. It forms the primary source of food for the flamingoes. Walking thus for about two hours we sighted many plovers, a black winged stilt, a western reef egret and a lone sanderling greeted us by the horizon. The greater flamingoes were present in large numbers but preferred to keep their distance. The center of the swamp served as a roosting site as numerous water birds gathered for their night roost. As dusk fell we trudged back. Out of the mud and on to the beach our sticky muddy feet were swept clean by the waters of the Bay of Bengal. Back for our dinner we surprised a hermit crab which promptly hid its face in a conch shell.

One of the nights we had our dinner near the beach and spent quite sometime on the beach watching the forest wagtails in large numbers one after the other heading towards the sea. They were on their annual migration to Sri Lanka. Night herons were also following their migration instincts flying in formations above us while we lay on the cool sand cushioning our heads. The next day morning more pelicans migrated to the swamps in a formation that did them credit. What luck to observe migration by day and by night!

Sadly as life would have it this wonderful place is plagued by the perils of development. Salt panning has increased the salinity of the waters to dangerous levels harmful to life. The lands are thrown waste and the waters cannot sustain life. Dead fish float on the surface refused to be eaten by the water birds. A nearby chemical factory draws benefit by producing bromide from the accumulated salt. A major blow is the upcoming Sethu Samudra project which proposes to link the two large water bodies of Palk Strait and Gulf of Mannar. If this project were to come to reality it would mean less time and money spent by ships to reach the Indian Ocean beyond Sri Lanka and in turn destruction of the coral reefs and swamps which serve as stopover sites for numerous migratory birds.

One glimmer of hope is people like Dr. Bala who are trying to convince the officials against this. A scientist at BNHS, he is one enthusiastic person whose genuine love for birds and child like awe of nature’s miracles is infectious. Truly a son of the soil he started the bird-banding project in Point Calimere and would like to see the Sanctuary provide a safe haven for the many avians who come here for refuge.

Further G.K on bird banding

Bird banding or ringing is essential to study individual or groups of birds within a population. Ringing involves catching a bird and putting a numbered metal ring on the tarsus bone (leg/thigh –in lay man’s terms), which will help the ringers in individual identification. All rings have particular size code, number and address of the organization engraved on it. While ringing, the ringer can identify the bird in hand and also take morphometric details (measurements of wing bill, tarsus, tail and weight) and other data from the bird. All the details are carefully entered in data sheets. In future, if the bird is recaptured or killed, the finder reports the number and the place of capture to the organization that ringed the bird thus revealing the whereabouts of the bird.

Aims of bird banding
To find out the movements of birds, flyways and distribution ranges.
To know the longevity of individuals within species.
To gather information on annual lifecycles and moult pattern.
To determine population breeding success from adult/juvenile ratios.

You can see that the aim of bird banding is not identification! Identification can be done using field guides. Earlier birds were killed and stuffed for gathering information and for identification. Thankfully is it no longer required since we have enough information on different species for their identification.

The bander has to select the correct band size depending on the tarsus of the bird. All bands have specific diameter suited for the tarsus of different species. After identifying the bird, the proper band has to be fixed on the tarsus bone with the help of pliers. The band should move freely on the tarsus and it should not be too loose to come off. For land birds the band can be fixed on the lower tarsus but for water birds it should be in the upper tarsus to avoid corrosion.

We came across many birds which had been already ringed by BNHS earlier. Dr. Bala narrated his experience with some Russian scientists who during their visit to Pt. Calimere coincidently found a bird ringed by a Russian institute! Dr. Bala also showed us bands he had recovered from Afghanistan and other countries.

Brood patch

Birds during incubation sit over eggs and transfer the body heat to the eggs for hatching. Prior to this they develop one or more incubation patch on the ventral side of the body. This area looses feathers and the skin is exposed to allow adequate heat transfer to the eggs. Later after incubation period is over, the feathers cover up this patch again. It is possible to see the brood patch by simply blowing the ventral side feathers of the body.

We could see brood patch on purple-rumped sunbird female.

Seen= S, Heard= H, Ringed= R
Grey Francolin (H,S)(Francolinus pondecerianus)
Indian Peafowl (Male) (S)(Pavo cristatus)
Lesser whistling duck (teal)(juvenile) (S)
(Dendrocygna javanica)
Cotton pygmy goose (female) (S)(Nettapus coromadelianus)
Black rumped flameback (R)(Dinopium benghalense)
Indian grey hornbill (S)(Ocyceros birostris)
Common hoopoe (S)(Upupa epops)
Indian Roller (S)(Coracias benghalensis)
White-throated kingfisher (S)(Halcyon smyrnensis)
Pied kingfisher (S)(Ceryle rudis)
Bluetailed beeeater (S)(Merops philippinus)
Green beeeater (S) )(Merops orientalis)
Pied crested cuckoo (S)(Clamator jacobinus)
Chestnut winged cuckoo (male) (R)( Clamator coromandus)
Lesser cuckoo (hepatic female) (R)(Cuculus poliocephalus)
Grey-bellied cuckoo (male,female) (R,S)(Cacomantis passerinus)
Asian koel (female) (S)(Eudynamys scolopacea)
Blue-faced Malkoha (S)(Phaenicophaeus viridirostris)
Lesser coucal (S,R)(Centropus benglensis)
Rose-ringed parakeet (S)(Pisttacula karmeri)
Asian palm swift (S)(Cypsiurus balasiensis)
House swift (S)(Apus affinis)
Barn swallow (S)(Hirundo rustica)
Spotted owlet (S)(Athene brama)
Spotted dove (S)(Streptopelia chinensis)
Laughing dove (S) (Streptopelia senegalensis)
Common coot (S)(Fulica atra)
Wimbrel(S)(Numenius phaeopus)
Eurasian curlew(S) (Numenius arquata)
Common redshank (S,R)(Tringa totanus)
Black baza (S)(Aviceda leuphotes)
Brahminy kite (juvenile & adult) (S)(Haliastur Indus)
Eurasian marsh harrier (S)(Circus aeruginosus)
Darter (S)(Ahinga melanogaster)
Little Egret (S)(Egretta garzetta)
Western reef egret (S)(egretta gularis)
Cattle egret (S)(Bubulcus ibis)
Pond heron (S)(Ardeola grayii)
Grey Heron (S)(Ardea cinerea)
Black-crowned night heron (S)(Nycticorax nycticorax)
Greater flamingo (S)(Phoenicopterus ruber)
Eurasian spoonbill (S)(Eurasian spoonbill)
Spot-billed pelican (S)(Pelecanus philippensis)
Painted stork (S)(Mycteria leucocephala)
Asian openbill (S)(Anastomus oscitans)
Indian Pitta (S,R)(Pitta brachyura)
Longtailed shrike (S)(Lanius schach)
Brown shrike (S,R) (Lanius cristatus)
Rufous treepie (S)Dendrocitta vagabunda)
Blackheaded cuckoo shrike (R)(Coracina melanoptera)
Black drongo (S)(Dicrurus macrocercus)
Asian pradise-flycatcher (rufous male, female) (S,R)(Terpsiphone paradisi)
Chestnut-tailed starling (R)(Sturnus malabaricus)
Brahminy starling (S,R)(Sturnus pagodarum)
Common myna (R)(Acridotheres tristis)
Red vented bulbul (S)(Pycnonotus cafer)
White browed bulbul (S,R) (Pycnonotus luteolus)
Lesser whitethroat (S,R)(Sylvia curruca)
Common tailor bird (S,R)(Orthotomus sutorius)
Greenish leaf warbler (R)(Phylloscopus trochiloides)
Large billed leaf warbler (R) (Phylloscopus magnirostris)
Jungle babbler (S)(Turdoides striatus)
Rufous-winged bushlark (S)(Mirafra assamica)

Marsh Sandpiper (S,R)(Tringa stagnatilis)
Common greenshank (S,R)(Tringa nebularia)
Wood sandpiper(S)(Tringa glareola)
Terek sandpiper (R) (Xenus cinereus)
Common sandpiper (R,S)(Actitis hypoleucos)
Ruddy turnstone (non-breeding) (R,S)(Arenaria interpres)
Sanderling (S)(Calidris alba)
Little stint (R,S) (Calidris minuta)
Long-toed stint (S) (Calidris subminuta)
Curlew sandpiper (S,R)(Calidris ferruginea)
Broad-billed sandpiper (R) (Limicola falcinellus)
Black-winged stilt (S)(Himantopus himantopus)
Grey plover (R)(Pluvialis squatarola)
Little ringed plover (S,R)(Charadrius dubius)
Kentish plover (S) (Charadrius alexandrinus)
Lesser sandplover (S,R) (Charadrius mongolus)
Red-wattled lapwing (S,H)(Vanellus indicus)
Heuglin’s gull (S)(Larus heuglini)
Brownheaded gull (S)(Larus brunnicephalus)
Gull-billed tern(S)(Gelochelidon nilotica)
Caspian tern (S)(Sterna caspia)
Lesser crested tern (S) (Sterna bengalensis)
Sandwich tern(R) (Sterna sandvicensis)
Common tern (R) (Sterna hirundo)
Little tern (S) (Sterna albifrons)
Whiskered tern (S)(Chlidonias hybridus)
Osprey (S)(Pandion haliaetus)
Purple rumped sunbird (R)(male & female) ( Nectarinia zeylonica)
Purple sunbird(R) ( Nectarinia asiatica)
Forest wagtail (S,R) (Dendronanthus indicus)
White-browed wagtail (S)(Motacilla maderaspatensis)
Paddy field pipit (S)(Anthus rufulus)
Baya weaver (S)(Ploceus philippinus)
House crow(Corvus splendens)
Jungle crow
Blue rock pigeon
Ring dove
White headed babbler (R)
Ruff (non-breeding) (R) ( Philomachus pugnax)



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